Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental health diagnosis. Part of the reason is that the disease causes devastating physical complications that can affect every system in the body. From our skin and bones to our hearts and brains, anorexia impacts our entire bodies. Below are 6 common complications that can result from anorexia.
Amenorrhea: A common complication for women and girls with anorexia, amenorrhea is the lack of a menstrual cycle in females of childbearing age. Low body weight is the major cause of amenorrhea in people with anorexia nervosa. Low body weight interrupts the body’s normal hormonal functions, which may halt ovulation. Excessive exercise and stress can cause similar problems. Amenorrhea can impact a woman’s ability to become pregnant and even cause pre-menopausal symptoms like night sweats and irritability.
Osteoporosis: Osteoporosis is a loss of bone density that causes bones to become weak, brittle, and easily fracture. People with low body weight produce low levels of estrogen. Estrogen helps the body absorb calcium. Without the proper amount of estrogen, the body has a hard time absorbing the calcium it needs to keep bones healthy.
Unfortunately, osteoporosis is irreversible. But if caught early enough, the loss of bone density that leads to osteoporosis – called osteopenia – can be reversed, usually with simple steps like maintaining an appropriate diet.
Bradycardia: Bradycardia is an abnormally low heart rate – typically below 60 beats per minute. The malnutrition associated with anorexia causes individuals to lose muscle mass. The heart, being a muscle itself, is impacted and shrinks. When this happens, the body will respond by slowing the heart rate to conserve energy.
The problem is that an abnormally low heart rate can cause abnormal heart rhythms that may lead to sudden cardiac arrest. This is particularly true for individuals with heart rates in the 40 beats per minute range and below. Although bradycardia is typically seen in patients who are underweight, it is important to know that it can affect those of any body weight who have experienced a significant and rapid weight loss.
Hypoglycemia: Hypoglycemia is a condition caused by low blood sugar (glucose). Glucose is your body’s main source of energy, and it needs a certain amount in order to function properly. Hypoglycemia occurs when your body’s blood glucose drops too low to provide enough energy for your body’s activities. Hypoglycemia occurs when the body does not have enough sustenance to produce glucose. It can cause all kinds of complications – from irritability and confusion to seizures and loss of consciousness.
Hair loss: For those living with anorexia, hair loss is a byproduct of malnutrition. Malnutrition depletes our bodies stores of the essential proteins it needs to perform all of its functions. When the body is malnourished it uses the little protein it has available to perform essential functions that keep us alive and stops performing others that are not needed. One of the non-essential functions is hair production. When this happens, individuals may experience hair thinning or loss.
Lanugo Hair: Lanugo hair is a soft, downy, peach fuzz that grows on the chests, face, and arms of individuals not receiving enough sustainable nutrients. Typically only seen in infants in the womb and newborn babies, lanugo is the body’s way of creating extra insulation and warmth for those first few weeks of life. After that, body fat takes over and provides us with the warmth and insulation that we need. For individuals living with anorexia, there is often not enough body fat to keep bodies warm so lanugo often grows to trap in what little heat is produced.
The good news is that the majority of these complications are reversible and all of them are preventable with proper intervention and treatment. If you or someone you love is experiencing any of the symptoms above, we can help.
Pat Jones is the Regional Manager of Marketing and Professional Relations for Walden Behavioral Care. Prior to joining Walden, Pat worked in marketing and admissions for several other mental health agencies in New England. He is passionate about finding appropriate care for patients and their loved ones. Pat spends his time outside of work hiking, fishing and watching LSU football. He lives in Farmington, CT with his wife Lauren, a dog named Zoe, and a cat named Mitch.